Mostly Happy

Prairie Fire, January 27, 2010

Children are vulnerable to the wiles and whims of adults. They are innocent and look to the first people they trust for guidance: their parents. But if, instead of a loving parent, children encounter cruelty and abuse, what happens? How do they find the inner strength, the honesty to discover who they are beyond the burden of abuse? How do they come to understand the parents who have betrayed that trust?

These are the questions that Bean Fallwell faces as she considers her past life. Mostly Happy is a book written from the point of view of a grown-up Bean as she reflects on her childhood. Pam Bustin captures the voice of the child impeccably; Bean's desires, her needs, her passion, her resolve to be happy.

Bean has a red Samsonite suitcase in which she places all the items that have meaning for her; they are the bright stars in an otherwise troublesome life. Bean moves around a lot. She's been in eighteen elementary schools. She excels at her studies but doesn't stay long enough in one place to garner benefit from them.

We soon learn the reason for Bean's constant moves. Bean's mother, Prissy, brings home men. Their stays are short-lived and many of them are abusive. Bean needs the warmth and love of her mother and the stability of a permanent home, and she would be content with their family of two. As she says when she and Prissy do share a few happy times together: "We sat. Bean and Prissy Fallwell in our new house--a yellow kitchen table, grill cheese on Wonder Bread, and Sunday morning coming down." (65) But her mother wants the love of a Prince Charming, as Bean tells us, and as Prissy continues her search to make this fantasy valid, she begins a series of relationships that brings disaster to her family.

Ritter Eberts, Bean's father, loves old movies, and often on Saturdays, she and Ritter enjoy watching them. But her father is also unstable and shortly after stabbing himself, Prissy and Bean go to live with her grandfather GT. Here she meets a boy who will have a great impact on her life.

Bean is three and half years old when she meets Gustave Wilson Peterson, better known as "Goose." His knowledge of everything in general and his empathy towards Bean cements an affection that will bring a lifelong friendship. He is the only person who tells her the truth about the men in her mother's life.

Bean, we discover, has an inner strength and she uses it to reach beyond the devastation she experiences; how she learns to cope is in this remarkable story. Realizing how ineffectual her parents are, Bean turns to Jack Vara, a man who becomes her stepfather. He is a man of great charm who casts a spell over both mother and daughter. Gradually, though, Bean discovers that he is a monster and suffers indignities at his heavy hands and boots. She turns to reading, which opens another world to which she can escape.

Eventually, Bean realizes she cannot live in the world shaped by her mother and her stepfather. As a teenager she makes the journey to the outside world away from the turmoil of her environment. As she says at the beginning of the book, "I left the suitcase with Goose and I went to the desert. All I took with me was my guilt." (9)

She needed to heal, to become human. Bean travels to England, Paris, and Toronto, eventually stopping in Wyoming. In the middle of her searching, she learns of the tragic news of her brother Cody; she also learns the reason behind her sister Dee's downward spiral into self-destruction.

As we read these chilling episodes, we wonder if Bean can survive. Jean Vanier once wrote that to achieve balance between disorder and order we have to accept who we are and accept others as they are. (15) In a world of cruelty and ignorance, we see Bean rise to the occasion time and again and reach a stage where she can look out on the world with new eyes and accept who she has become and also accept who her mother and her sister are.

Despite the rough language and violent situations in which the child Bean and her siblings find themselves, this is one spellbinding story. — Mary Barnes

Mary Barnes is a writer living in Wasaga Beach, Ontario.


CM, Volume XIV Number 23, June 27, 2008
Prissy pulled up in a cab just as they were putting Dee in the ambulance. I went mental. I started screaming at her that Dee had almost died... I kept screaming. ‘I’m ten, for fuck’s sake! She’s sick. She coulda died.’ I’d never screamed at Prissy before. I never said that I was afraid to watch Dee when she was sick. I wasn’t afraid. I just did it, like I did everything else...”

Mostly Happy is a gritty, realistic work of fiction set in western Canada in the last decades of the twentieth century. It traces the life of Bean E. Falwell from birth to a major epiphany in her early twenties. Author Pam Bustin, a Saskatoon-based playwright and novelist, says in her bio note that she was raised in a host of small prairie towns. In her “Acknowledgements,” she thanks an editor who helped her “tell the story clean.”

Bean’s name was chosen by her dad, Ritter, because at birth she reminded him of a red kidney bean. Prissy, Bean’s 16- year-old mother, added the ‘E’, which stood for nothing. ‘Ritter found out before the wedding that his other girlfriend was pregnant, too,” Bean writes. “‘Too late, Sweetheart,’ he said. ‘I’m already on the hook.’“

Neither parent had the maturity or the education that might have prepared them for parenthood and the fluctuations of the labour market. As early as age three, Bean sits up late with her parents to monitor and defuse their fights which intensify when they are drinking. She distracts them from violence using comedy routines learned from TV. When Ritter stabs himself (not fatally) with a kitchen knife, Bean and her mother go to live with Grandpa Tom. There, Bean meets “Goose” (short for “Gustav”), a neighbour boy who becomes her lifelong friend. Although the children are separated by the twists and turns of Prissy’s life, Bean writes to Goose from wherever she is. She buys a single postage stamp whenever Prissy sends her to a convenience store. Because the cost of one stamp is never missed, she is able to maintain a supply.

After moving out of Grandpa Tom’s house, Prissy and Bean live on Prissy’s waitressing income or on welfare, supplemented by contributions from Prissy’s boyfriends. “Prissy dated a lot of truckers,” writes Bean. “They were all right. They took us out to eat, they didn’t stick around long, and they always thought they might be back through, so they never got mean with Prissy or up to anything with me.” Eventually Prissy teams up with Jack Vara, an acquaintance from her early teens, and has another child, Dee. Jack had a “horrific” violent streak, Bean remembers, “but it was like we had some kind of amnesia...There were long long periods of fun and laughter, and we forgot.”

Jack, in quest of work, moves the family from town to town. Wherever she lives, Bean excels in school. She embraces the good and decent things that come her way, seeking enlightenment and friendship wherever they appear - from small town churches, a New Age group, a Mennonite family, and books. When young, she accepts her home life as normal. Later, seeing its flaws, she takes care never to let any authority figure know how dysfunctional her family is because of her fear of Jack, her loyalty to Prissy and her concern for Dee.

After presenting Bean’s formative years, Bustin shows her heroine’s attempts to find her own path in life. In Grade Eleven, Bean moves out to live on her own. The last part of the novel shows Bean attempting to process and synthesize all the influences upon her and dealing with survivor guilt. A career as an actor is a natural choice for Bean, because she has played roles all her life, because she already has experience with a hand-to-mouth life, and because the acting profession transcends social class. Yet repeatedly, she drops everything, leaves Toronto, and travels west in response to a cry for help from her suicidal younger sister. Gradually, Bean realizes that Dee has been sexually abused, and, in time, she faces the shadowy memories suggesting that the same thing happened to her.

Whatever our life circumstances, people from our pasts almost always yank the chains forged in childhood. Bean’s ongoing internal debate about what she owes them and what she owes herself, will strike a universal chord in many readers. Mostly Happy is a coming-of-age story akin to Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life, and Janet Fitch’s White Oleander. Yet Bean E. Falwell is a unique character whose survival will give hope to readers in comparable situations.

At the end, Bean phones her mother to say that she is coming home again to discuss some “old stuff.” When Prissy asks, “Are you happy in your life?” Bean replies, “Mostly.”
— Ruth Latta
Highly Recommended
Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.
**** /

Saskatoon StarPhoenix, May 3, 2008
Saskatoon playwright Pam Bustin’s first novel, Mostly Happy, features a main character named Bean E. Fallwell. Her story takes her from conception in Regina, through life in a host of houses and towns throughout Saskatchewan and eventually England, Europe, and Toronto, to a reckoning in the New Mexico desert. The only thing she takes with her on most of these journeys is a red Samsonite suitcase stocked with her treasures.

Bean’s mother, Prissy, got pregnant very young. Without much education or guidance of her own, Prissy works waitressing jobs and leans on her father and sisters for help with raising Bean. But mostly Bean raises herself.

She watches her mother and her biological father, Ritter, hold together a shaky relationship for a few years and learns to gauge exactly when the hitting will start. Then there’s the time she thinks of as their golden period, after Ritter and before the next long-term relationship, when it’s just the two of them against the world. Well, the two of them and a parade of odd men Prissy brings home from the bars and clubs she frequents. And then comes Jack.

Jack Vara is a smooth character who plays guitar and seems to know what everyone is doing at all times. It doesn’t take him long to add a baby sister to the little family and to go from smooth to very rough. From then on, life with Jack is hell. He controls everyone’s movements, his moods are mercurial, and he enforces everything he demands with his fists and boots.
Through all this turmoil, this moving from apartment to house to new school in a new town or part of town. Bean keeps up her spirits with a lively imaginative life, excellent grades in school, a loving relationship with her grandfather GT and her Aunt Lip, and her enduring friendship with a boy named Goose.

Gustave Peterson, or Goose, is the one person in Bean’s life who tells her the truth. Coming from a mysteriously — to Bean — functional family, he tells her when he sees things that are wrong. Hitting women and children is wrong. 10-year-olds holding together a family is wrong. And there’s plenty more wrong in Bean’s world.

Bustin has a mostly sure hand on what a young girl at the various stages of this kind of life would be expected to know and do. Yes, Bean is there to bring her mother a hangover remedy in the morning or hide the baby during a fight or lie to the social worker about when her parents were expected home. And we can easily believe that violent necessity has prodded Bean’s early grasp of social nuance and the hows and whys of day-to-day life.

However, Bustin may push Bean’s nearly Zen-like talents just a little far when in one stretch 10-year-old Bean tells a one-eyed girl she’s met she’s beautiful and that “she was funny and smart and if people couldn’t see past one missing eyeball then it was their loss,” and five pages later, when reprimanded by Goose for shoplifting from the local Chinese merchant, has a sudden guilty epiphany: “I felt like a retard — a racist fricking retard.” Even considering her precociousness, Bean here sounds like Gandhi.

Bean isn’t Gandhi, and the legacy of abuse piles up into the next generation. Here Bustin shows us, with great clarity and authority, a young girl getting older and coming to terms with what has happened along the way. How does Bean stop the perverse cycle of sexual and physical abuse? Where did it come from? Is it her fault? Should she have done something differently?

Mostly Happy
, despite its occasionally wrenching, sometimes simply dreary, story of a girl’s life, is mostly happy because of the indomitable spirit of its main character. To use a cliché about this kind of person, Bean is a survivor, but more than that. Rather than take the little bits of warmth from the world she can and huddle in a dark corner with them, she spreads them around. Suitcase in hand, from town to town, she takes what love comes her way and passes it on. — Bill Robertson

Robertson is a Saskatoon freelance writer.

Resource Links, Volume 14 Number 1, October 2008
This novel tells the story of Bean and her hardscrabble, abused life. Told in the first person, the story is for many pages relentlessly upbeat. Bean learns to read at the age of three and, at the same age, starts observing the world around her and saving totems to mark each stage of her existence. These souvenirs are stored in a Samsonite suitcase, and used to itemize the organization of this otherwise wandering story. As a method of crafting the shape of the story, the scheme is strangely Hat; each item (a church pamphlet, a purple scarf, a Shazam comic, for example) stands for an incident in Bean's life and the incidents follow one on the other like beads on a chain. The potential for the list to become wearisome is never completely absent, and towards the end the book begins to feel very long.

Bean's parents are inadequate, her stepfather dangerous. Her grandfather represents one source of stability; another comes with her lifelong friend Goose (Gustave) and his re- spectable parents who uneasily become somewhat involved in her ramshackle life. It is clear throughout the story that both sexual and physical abuse are part of the reality of Bean's life, but for many pages she shrugs off the impact of these events, developing a shell that seems impervious. Only at the very end of the book does she begin to address some of the questions arising out of such an exploited childhood.

The language is very graphic, and Bean's survival strategies sometimes seem rather glib because of her precocious intelligence. It is the latter fact rather than the former that makes me rate this book as a P. Nevertheless, the book does address dark comers of childhood. Even high school librarians should read this book before stocking it, not with a view to censorship but on the grounds that readers may want to talk about the story once they have read it. Public librarians may want to take the same approach.
— Margaret Mackey

Thematic Links: Autobiography; Collecting; Sexual Abuse of Children; Physical Abuse of Children